The old belief that race tracks are for racing and forests are for rallying really doesn’t hold true any more. This winter, the best-supported and most competitive rallies in the UK will be run at permanent facilities.
With most rallying, particularly the kind done on forest tracks, still on hold, the special-stage rallies running at race tracks are enjoying an unparalleled boom. If you don’t get your entry completed in the first 10 minutes after entries open online, you’ll miss out.
Rallying on and around tracks isn’t new, of course. Since the 1960s, tracks have sometimes been turned into special stages; the 1968 RAC Rally featured a special stage at Silverstone, taking in some of the track and looping around the wartime Nissen huts.
But the whole movement took a major step forward several years ago with the creation of the Circuit Rally Championship. Motorsport Vision saw the potential and got on board, with a set of winter dates outside the main racing and track-day season offering venues another pay day.
To date, Brands Hatch, Snetterton, Cadwell Park, Donington Park, Oulton Park, Anglesey and Knockhill have all hosted rally events, as have Pembrey, Mallory Park and Croft. The stages are based on the race track, run in both directions, and on its access roads to add variety.
The 2020/21 championship season started at Donington in early December, and the organisers stopped taking entries when they had a full field of 100 and 60 reserves. The story was the same for the event at Brands Hatch in January, which was filled in a matter of minutes.
Notably, while it covers any special-stage-legal rally car, the entry is packed with top-spec machinery. At Donington, more than 20 World Rally Cars and R5 cars headed the field; a new Ford Fiesta R5 comes in at the top side of £200,000.
Meanwhile, a phalanx of top-level Ford Escort Mk2s, complete with 300bhp engines, clever dampers and sequential gearboxes, add to the show.
Richard Wells, one of the Fiesta R5 contenders, said: “We did the championship last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. Throughout the winter, it’s good to be in the car, and it gives you more seat time. The standard of car and driver is really strong. Even getting a top 10 finish is good.”
The man on winning form at present is young GT racer Frank Bird, who drives a 2007-spec Ford Focus WRC previously rallied by his father, Paul.
“First of all, my dad lets me drive his car, which is mega,” he said. “It’s good for seat time and to keep me sharp for my other circuit commitments. I really enjoy it, and it’s definitely a challenge. We do the circuits in the wrong direction and there are chicanes. In a WRC car, it’s pretty good.”
It may not be the purist’s idea of rallying, but the Circuit Rally Championship is booming at a time when much of the rallying world is on its knees.